Communicating effectively and quickly to your stakeholders in an emergency is an important part of building trust within your community. Imagine the difference between hearing through the grapevine that an executive director was fired, versus hearing from the organization directly that there’s a change in leadership and a plan to move forward with an interim or acting leader. In the first situation, you don’t know what has happened or why, and you don’t have any idea what is happening. It seems like the firing happened suddenly and without any thought. In the latter situation, you know the board took careful and thoughtful actions. Even if you disagree with their process, you know that the board recognizes the repercussions of their decision.
All that changed between the two situations is that the board proactively provided information. They didn’t hide that something had happened. They demonstrated that they were in control of the situation. Having a written communication plan in place ahead of time means that information will be shared on the terms of the organization, not the rumor mill.
Here are eight steps to take to get started:
- Identify your crisis communication team: a couple of board members, the ED, a senior staff member, and/or communications person.
- Discuss the types of crises that you might be called on to deal with. This could include an issue with an employee, an issue with a client, a natural disaster affecting your building, or a global pandemic (the last was rarely on the list for crisis planning before 2020!) Don’t worry about the details too much, however. If something happens, it will likely not be what you thought about originally, but your plans will still be valid.
- Make sure each crisis communication team member has access to a current list of all staff and board contact information.
- Establish who can access your social media and email contact lists. If rumors surface, you’ll need to be ready to address them quickly on social media, not scrambling for access to the account.
- Identify key organizational contacts such as funders, program partners, major donors, and regular volunteers to contact in an emergency situation, and collect their contact information. Identify how quickly you’ll contact these groups and how (personal phone call, personal email, mass email, etc). For all groups (including staff and board), identify in advance who will be responsible for communicating with them.
- Develop a plan of who will be in charge of communications in an emergency. In particular, it is important to stress to board and staff members that they need to defer to the team for communications, not take it upon themselves to put out messages which may be conflicting.
- Be as honest and forthcoming as you can be. There will be plenty you can’t share, but tell people what you can so they aren’t making up their own answers.
- Continue to communicate. Even after the immediate crisis is past, your supporters will still be wondering what is happening. If you are hiring a new ED, provide updates on the process. If you had a sudden drop in funding, tell people how they can help. During a crisis, you’ll receive a lot more attention than normal, and you can capitalize on that by engaging with people and demonstrating that you are handling it professionally. You’ll build goodwill and confidence that will last long past the immediate situation.
Putting together this plan won’t take long, but it will save you time and energy in the case of an actual crisis so you can focus on solving the problem. Want to talk through your plan for crisis communications? Contact me and let’s chat.
Here are some templates and guides that go further in-depth on this topic:
- A broad overview of the need for crisis communication plans and templates for creating your own (from the Colorado Nonprofit Association)
- Very detailed for larger nonprofit organizations (from Bloomerang)
- Wild Apricot has a good post detailing Crisis Communication Planning
- Don’t forget to plan for social media communication. Hootsuite and Forum One each have good guides on that.
- Here’s a straightforward guide on creating a good crisis press release.